As one of Canada’s top food authorities thanks in part to her bestselling cookbook, award-winning website, and nearly a decade-long list of acclaimed culinary-focused publications, Ontario-based chef Tara O’Brady was very likely among Food Network Canada’s first choices when selecting the judging panel for its newest competition series, Wall of Bakers.
In addition to serving as the Culinary Host for The Globe and Mail’s travel program, chef O’Brady has been regular on-air expert for CTV’s Your Morning and The Marilyn Denis Show, was the cultural consultant for the new CBC series Run the Burbs, and also featured as a guest judge on Iron Chef Canada.
With the Wall of Bakers series premiere now just two weeks away, we decided it would be a perfect time to ask the celebrated chef-author for a few food and beverage recommendations in her home base of Niagara, Ontario.
[RPM Bakehouse] is the newest brilliance from the team behind the Restaurant at Pearl Morissette, and it's a stunner of a space. Prior to opening, their baked goods were available at their roadside market and for delivery and their baguette won my heart with its blend of Hard Red Spring Wheat from The Howick Community and Rouge de Bordeaux Wheat and Corn Germ, and how they bake it to a gorgeous chestnut brown.
Add a coffee and it's all I really need, but that fact wouldn't stop me from picking up some pastries for the road. I appreciate their equal attention to savoury (sausage rolls, quiche, focaccia) and sweet baking (adorable choux puffs filled with preserved apricot and a shiso Chantilly cream), their attention to detail, and their commitment to locality in their ingredients.
Maria’s Tortas Jalisco. Maria Ojeda and her daughters Elena and Angelina are absolute gems, and their food is the type you crave on the regular. There are a few seats inside, but I firmly believe everyone should experience the joy of sitting in a car, eating one of her tostadas (barbacoa for me, fully loaded, and with their salsa orale).
That tostada has everything, between the crackling shell, deeply-seasoned meat, fresh vegetables, salty hit of the cheese, and the incandescent housemade, habanero-based salsa, it is full of textures, gloriously messy in the best way, and made to be washed down with an ice-cold Mexican Coke or Sidral.
The Frijoles Charros are not to be missed, and I always order some to take home. They're cowboy-style beans with beef and bacon, served with freshly-fried totopos, and all the toppings. Be sure to ask for the pickled carrots and jalapeños, as well as the spicy onions.
Pho Xyclo. This treasure is a go-to when I want to feel bolstered by bright, direct flavours, and the comfort of noodles. It's also on the very-short list of where my girlfriends and I head to catch up, over steaming bowls of deliciousness.
The Gỏi Cuốn Thit Nướng (fresh rolls) are the move to begin, rice-paper wrapped vermicelli noodles with cucumber, carrot, greens, and grilled pork, served with Xyclo peanut sauce. If really going hard, do it up with the gỏi cuốn chả giò or kim rolls, which are fresh rolls wrapped around a fried spring roll. In that case, double up on the crunch with the crispy basa.
I will never say no to tofu puffs, and am happiest when they're bobbin in a bath of laska, so that would be to follow. The curried Malaysian noodle soup sends up a fug redolent of turmeric, coconut, lemongrass, shallot as soon as it is placed on the table, and I take particular pleasure in adding all the garnishes as I like them—bean sprouts, fresh herbs and chilies.
While this is under the drinks category, that's a bit of a misnomer as there is no way anyone's heading to Dispatch and not ordering at least a snack.
To play by the rules, while they boast one of the most interesting wine lists in Niagara, the cocktails are the move to open as they're reliably inventive and shockingly well-balanced. They are always changing, but the Mumbai Mule and Praline Old Fashioned are past favourites, and their non-alcoholic sips stand up to their boozy counterparts, so nobody feels left out.
I'll eat whatever chef Adam Hynam-Smith puts in front of me, and while he's a deft hand with meats, his care with vegetables stands out and is unparalleled in the region. He's never not coming up with something new, so ask him what's exciting and follow that lead. You're also going to want to pick up some of their hot sauce to take home.
Watch: Wall of Bakers - Food Network Canada
Tune in on March 28 at 10p.m ET/PT on Food Network Canada.